Nesreen Khashan
 Adjunct Faculty, Mission College, Santa Clara, CA


1001 Representations: Who gets to tell an Arab or Muslim story?


As the most recent presidential election campaign has shown, the United States remains a country with outmoded conceptions of race and ethnic identity. While campaigning, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama was regularly identified solely as a black man. The lack of vocabulary for more nuanced terminology revealed the work that still must be done in developing a framework for discussing racial and ethnic identities in the United States.  The election unfortunately also revealed that Americans as a whole continue to have “us” and “them” conceptions about Arabs and Muslims, groups that are represented in sizable numbers in many communities throughout the United States. During the campaign disparaging remarks about Arabs and Muslims were made on a consistent and conscious basis. For many Arabs and Muslims, more stinging than the remarks was the silence that usually followed. Neither candidate wanted to be seen defending Arabs or Muslims. Obama in many ways was forced to dance around the issue more than McCain. When opponents would make claims that Obama was a Muslim, although the charge was spurious, it carried with it a loaded message. Being Muslim was more than different, it was derogatory, dangerous and foreign. To bring the point home more emphatically, Obama's opponents took to emphasizing the candidate's middle name, Hussein.       

     It’s clear that the United States is not “post-racial” as some pundits had claimed following the early days of the Obama victory, anymore than the world was witnessing “The End of History” as Francis Fukuyama had claimed following the collapse of the Soviet Union. What is obvious is that the United States is growing more diverse as we march further into the 21st century. Diversity has altered the American landscape but the discourse and culture has not shifted with it. As new immigrant groups integrate into U.S. life there are growing movements within these communities to gain greater agency over how they are represented in and to the greater society. Ethnic communities are tapping into multiple media to enhance discourse within their own circles about political and cultural identities. Disagreements over representations are not only being contested vis- -vis the larger society but also from within ethnic communities.  

Since the United States was founded immigrant communities have been carving distinct spaces for themselves while also integrating and assimilating into the greater social fabric. What is different in this iteration of immigrant identities is the speed and assertiveness in which groups are seeking to gain power over their representations that are usually shaped by corporate media structures that prefer hegemonic narratives.

In U.S. Arab and Muslim communities multiple outlets such as online forums, radio programming, transnational satellite networks, newspapers and magazines have cropped up since September 11, 2001 to combat mainstream representations. Other media that existed before the terrorist attacks grew more determined in their missions to foster constructive discourse about identity amidst many of the troubling developments associated with the Bush Administrations “War on Terror.”

 These efforts are robust and take on many forms. Arab and Muslims have tapped into the Internet to create transnational ethnic communities and co-religionist hubs. Publications, print and online, such as the Muslim American magazines Elan, Islamica and Azizah and the Arab American literary journal Mizna have emerged as venues for  Muslims and Arabs to discuss identity. Muslims and Arabs, like other minorities, supplement mainstream media and entertainment sources with news and programming they feel is closer to their communities. Religion is part of the conversation, but many are also framing themselves in broader cultural terms, and attempting to answer how to balance secularism with faith.

 While there are multiple media, some domestic, others international and transnational, this development remains unexamined by the larger society. Members of religious and ethnic communities engage in discourse on a track separate from that of the mainstream culture. There is nothing forced about these divisions and Muslim and Arabs are certainly also among the consumers of mainstream media. Whether in ethnic or mainstream media there are multiple conversations going on, all sharing levels of simplicity and sophistication in their discourse, but rarely do the paths of these multiple strands meet.

While ethnic groups of all backgrounds are engaging in broad-minded discussions about identity, it seems most timely for community colleges to tap into these discussions and use them to teach. Community college educators are in a position to plug a gap that may not be addressed at the secondary level, which is beholden to state school boards or at four-year institutions, where many in academia have still failed to distill their valuable scholarship for popular consumption.  Community colleges are more nimble and have always been a hub for gathering a broad swathe of society from recent immigrants to older adults retooling for a changing job market.

Exploring the vast field of ethnic media is daunting but deciding on where to start should not be.  The past eight years of the Bush Administration have left Arab and Muslim Americans increasingly more defensive in relation to the larger society. Incidents of Muslims being pulled out of airport or bank lines because of headscarves or appearances are still reported in the United States. Mainstream society meanwhile continues to rely on representations of these groups that bear marginal resemblance to how Muslims and Arabs see themselves. As will be discussed in the case study below of the two Lolita texts, an examination into divergent interpretations of Iranian and Muslim cultures, representations of Arabs and Muslims favored by interlocutors further foreign policy goals of the political establishment. At the same time these same representations ensure divisions rather than mutual understanding persist between diverse populations at home.  

Many forms of ethnic media including social networking or advocacy websites and publications, print magazines and newspapers, or domestic and transnational television and radio programs [provided all are in English] are not that expensive, particularly in comparison to the increasing costs of purchasing textbooks.  Ethnic media are often produced at a reading level consistent with those found in most American newspapers—a reading level that is significantly easier to access for community college students who might not be ready to take on the more onerous readings found in academic texts.    

Exposing students to Arab and Muslim American literary journals, magazines, advocacy websites, films and radio shows allows them to peek into the lives of these ethnic groups in a meaningful and substantial manner. These insights are more grassroots than what students might find in a textbook or by visiting a museum, and they have an immediacy of being alive and relevant to current affairs.  Inviting students to witness and indeed participate in the discourse of these groups challenges their own previously held representations and thereby extends their inquiries into the forces that shaped those representations. This approach is not to suggest that Arabs and Muslims, in generating their own media representations, do so absent any type of agenda or with any assumed objectivity. What it does is insert difference and complexity to discussions about these groups.

Using media culled from domestic and transnational Arab and Muslim sources such as Al Jazeera Television in English, found both online and through satellite television subscription, is a good departure point. But as community college instructors, our best resources are on our campus and in our classrooms. Finding out if there is a Muslim student group on campus and seeing if its members would be willing to give presentations in the classrooms and tours of their communities would provide a sense of immediacy and accessibility.

Resources are also found in our community in the form of ethnic grocers and religious centers—both Christian and Muslim—where Arabs worship. Many local mosques have community learning centers attached to them, where youth group activities occur. They sometimes offer courses in Arabic. During the last election in particular some mosques donated space as polling places in their neighborhoods. Many U.S. Muslims are eager to be accepted and indeed normalized into the larger community. Reaching out to a local imam, explaining your educational objectives and asking him how he might be willing to host a site tour or connect Muslim adherents with their community college peers might yield a surprisingly fruitful partnership.

     Taking advantage of local and transnational media produced by and for Arab and Muslim Americans will enable instructors and students to have counterpoints to mainstream media representations of these communities. Once educators become aware of resources, the media is easy and relatively inexpensive to access and is available at reading levels within reach to community college students. These books, articles, radio programs, Internet sites and the like should be used in tandem with examples from more prevalent media about these communities. In this context, students can examine differences in tenor and tone, thus raising awareness of the role production plays in representation.

     The next step is to take it to a global context. Educators could design a course outline that spends the first half of the semester tapping into local resources and exposing students to domestic and transnational media. In the second part of the course, instructors can draw the broader connection to how standard representations about Arabs and Muslims have been used to further foreign policy agendas. With this second point, educators should be careful to not accuse authors or artists of conspiring with political forces who appropriate their texts for other purposes.  

     The following case study examines the role corporations play through powerful distribution channels and mass media access to render invisible multiple viewpoints of Arab and Muslim cultures and lives, both as they exist domestically and internationally. While illustrative of the greater point, the case study also offers a superb framework for the second part of a semester course suggested in which instructors and students examine global Arab and Muslim representations and how they relate to US foreign policy.

The two Lolitas

In 2006, Hamid Dabashi issued his indictment against Azar Nafizi’s bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran. In his critique, Dabashi lambasted Nafizi for being a “comprador intellectual,” someone from within an ethnic community who acts on behalf of a larger imperial force to reinforce negative stereotypes of backwardness. The criticism circulated widely among the halls of academia, particularly in Middle East Studies circles. It even earned Dabashi a write-up on Wikipedia. Meanwhile, Nafizi’s bestseller, released in 2003, continued to fall into the hands of eager Western readers who had come across endless marketing stream of buzz about the tale of an Iranian school teacher who privately reads Western novels to her pupils while in the safe confines of her home. Away from the glaring eyes of a post-Revolutionary Iran, enlightened discourse about Western classics could temporarily suspend the imprisonment the instructor and her female students encountered when they left the sanctuary of Nafizi’s home.   

One year later, Fatemeh Keshavarz published Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran. In her memoir, Keshavarz offers a counterpoint to Nafizi’s Lolita. Keshavarz wanted to insert nuance in the discussion of Iranian literature and civilization by telling her story about being richly informed by Iranian’s own storytellers and poets while growing up in her native country. The academy had struck back but who was listening? With limited dissemination and a small publisher budgets, Keshavarz’s book was unknown to most. It did not sit on precious and valuable shelf space at bookstores to counter the blockbuster that Nafizi’s book still was. Publishers favor representations of places and people in current affairs that mesh with the general policy and public consensus. They do so because like all businesses, they want to make large profits. Stories about Middle Eastern women held hostage by their societies are wildly popular among Western readers, particularly American woman. Scholar Farzaneh Milani calls them “hostage narratives,” a trope popularized in American books such as the 1987 bestseller Not Without My Daughter that later became a made-for-television movie starring Sally Fields1.

Lamentations of how the odds are stacked in favor of large publishers do little to change the reality that readers will reach for titles that are marketed most aggressively toward them and reaffirm beliefs they already have about Arabs and Muslims. As educators it is our duty to remain conscious of the role profits and politics play in the publishing process. Certainly titles such as Nafizi’s Lolita deserve recognition and have their place in standard pedagogy but to include them without counterpoint when there are plenty out there is a shortcoming of our roles as educators.

Corporations can favor certain representations over others but teachers should not. When we teach, the Nafizi and Keshavarzs ought to be given equal time and consideration in our classrooms. The trouble is we as educators who are not area specialists are confronted with the same field of prominent selections favored by corporate publishers. To break through this field and become aware of other voices squeezed at the margins we first must understand why it is that alternative representations of persons, places and cultures that are fixtures in the American consciousness appear to be absent.

Corporate media are not the only voices out there but they are the ones that put forth the standard narratives that become the default interpretations of how we view our world, both at home and abroad.  The corporate consolidation trend that has intensified over the last two decades has included media, resulting, in one sense in fewer options for audiences. For publishers, media consolidation reached a flurried pace in the 1990s when gigantic corporations gobbled up already large publishing houses.  Publishers face more pressures than in previous decades to push up their profit margins. Where once three to five percent returns would have satisfied publishers who saw their labors as serving a higher purpose, today media corporate conglomerates are hovering over those who receive the manuscripts. What these conglomerates seek is the next bestseller not the unknown voice or the rarely expressed perspective2.

Still more pressure and decision making over which titles get darling treatment occurs at the distribution level. Amazon.com offers Nafizi’s book for $10 and it remains among the top 3,000 bestsellers on the website a full six years after it was first published. Keshavarz’s book, released in hardcover by the University of North Carolina in January 2007 in hardback, is no longer sold on Amazon’s website though the book distributor is taking preorders for the paperback edition, due to be released in December 2009.

     Educators can be at the forefront of making conscious decisions of using standard narratives in pedagogical contexts as long as they are accompanied by the great wealth of counterpoint texts that exist but take knowledge and resources to scope out. In the age of Twitter, Facebook, RSS feeds, PDAs, text messaging and the like, many have heralded the end of the world of book publishing, magazines and certainly newspapers. Those who mark the end of the printed world have us reduce our existence to short spurts of text messages, an oddly truncated language that those over the age of 34 are often not fluent in. Yet the Internet and its age of digital transmission offers publishing a new frontier.  For small publishers, including academic presses such as the University of North Carolina Press, which published Jasmine and Stars, digital releases offer a chance to reduce printing costs while expanding reach. In December 2008, University of North Carolina Press announced a partnership to have some of its titles, including Jasmine and Stars published by digital publisher DailyLit. Among the other UNC Press titles DailyLit will release at nominal cost to readers are some of the publisher’s back-listed children’s titles3.

Different Conversations Can Converge

There is nothing new about the notion that conversations within ethnic groups can differ markedly from those conversations hegemonic powers and their societies have about them. These differences are widely understood within ethnic groups domestically and internationally. The separate conversations have continued but the media has altered, with options narrowing in one sense under media consolidation and diversifying in another through Internet and held-held devices and their multiple modes of presenting content.  Some in ethnic communities, including Arabs and Muslims, would prefer to have conversations about themselves, where they work through their own internal differences, outside of the glaring eyes of a critical and judgmental public. At the same time there is a greater willingness among U.S. Arabs and Muslims to engage the larger society in exercises of cross-cultural understanding.

     The opportunity to engage in constructive conversations about perceptions of Arab and Muslims is now. Coming fresh off a presidential election that ushered in terrific change in our own history of race relations, the U.S. is not “post-racial,” after all but more aware than ever of how much it lacks a genuine national discourse about its growing racial, ethnic and religious diversity. Community college instructors have the resources on their own diverse campuses and in their communities to channel alternative views of representing these groups into constructive, engaging and enduring lifelong lessons. Cull from a plethora of alternative media resources produced by and for Arab and Muslim Americans and add a solid pedagogical framework, and teachers will have a curriculum that makes their students more discriminating consumers of a bewildering array of media choices. It will also make their students a bit savvier about how they view the world around them, a lesson that we as a society must promote.

Nesreen Khashan
Adjunct Faculty
Department of Global Studies
Mission College
Santa Clara, CA 95054
nesreen_khashan@wvm.edu